A run-down community centre left empty for three years in Southwark has become the centre of a battle for public space after a group of squatters were moved out last week.
A group of squatters turned 5 Westminster Bridge Road, Southwark, into a Black queer community hub, as it was left empty after its last tenant, the Feminist Library, was evicted in 2019 as the space became unsafe.
Late last year the group, self-titled ‘The Repo Centre’, decided to occupy the disused space, turning it into a makeshift Black queer community centre.
A group member known as Brandáo* said: “Southwark Council would essentially rather get no rent at all and let the building fall into disrepair, let people forget about the building essentially until it’s easier to sell it into corporate development, rather than let people use it.”
Cllr Helen Dennis, Cabinet Member for Sustainable Development, said the building is not currently safe and needs major repairs to the plumbing and electrics, along with a new roof, before it can be used again.
Dennis added: “For this reason, the last tenants moved from the building in 2019 to a new site in Southwark which the council helped secure and make fit for purpose.
“The illegal occupation of the building is delaying the building works required to bring the property back into beneficial use, whether for the council’s own occupation, by a community or voluntary sector occupier or affordable workspace.”
The council took the Repo Centre to Clerkenwell and Shoreditch County Court on 18 January and the group accepted a draft order by consent allowing the council to reclaim the building.
Another Repo Centre member known as Marvin Azoulay* said they chose this to buy extra time to plan for the move.
He said: “There’s been rumours, stories of High Court bailiffs taking two or three months to get around to the eviction because they are just booked up, basically.
“It is a sign of the economy – obviously not a great thing but it works in our favour for this very particular instance.”
The property opened as a resource centre for anti-racist community organisations in 1984, coming under Southwark Council’s control in 1989.
Archives from the Bishopsgate Institute showed it was once home to the Black Lesbian and Gay Centre, the ASRA Greater London Housing Association, the Confederation of Indian Organisations, and West Indian Standing Conference.
It last housed the Feminist Library from 15 April 1994 to spring 2019.
A volunteer with the Feminist Library, Anna, said the centre first opened in an era where it was easy to set up physical spaces for women’s, LGBT, and anti-racist organisations.
She said the Greater London Council would often give funding to such projects before it was dissolved in 1986.
Anna added the library struggled to make ends meet when she first joined in 2011, when the council had only charged £12,000 service charge but then added £15,000 a year rent on top in 2016.
She said: “The building was really deteriorated, so there was wallpaper peeling off the walls, it was in really bad condition.
“It is obviously painful for us to see this building that they were like ‘oh you can’t possibly stay here because we need to make money out of it’ and it has just been sitting empty instead of someone doing something positive with it.
“Now someone has come along who is doing something in the spirit of why the building was set up in the first place, and again the council are treating them like criminals.”
Anna said it was only after a lengthy campaign and delivering a petition to a council meeting by hand that Southwark Council offered the Sojourner Truth Community Centre at 161 Sumner Rd in Peckham as their new home.
She commended the council for not shutting any of their public libraries in response to budget cuts and acknowledged the challenges they faced through the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, she said she felt commercialisation and priority for newer projects meant the council devalued the Feminist Library and other established organisations.
She added: “One part of the council will really want to help the community and voluntary sector, but the other part will have calculated how much this building is worth, and whoever can pay it will be the person who is there.
“They also tend to have a focus on new things but you should be looking in your borough at what is already there and how you can support that.”
Anna said the council gave concessions to the Feminist Library when they first moved but are now pressuring the library to pay the full rent and because of this, she was nervous to speak out.
She added: “We’re still renting from the council and we’re still in a very precarious situation – we are not secure at all.
“That’s the reason why it’s quite upsetting that they think it is okay to just have an empty building for three years.”
*All members of the Repo Centre wished to use pseudonyms and are known as ‘persons unknown’ in the county court listing. Anna wished to go only by her first name.